The Birth of The Grand National: The Real Story
By Mick Mutlow for Thoroughbred Heritage. ©Mick Mutlow, 2006. Mick Mutlow has been studying the history of the Grand National for over thirty years and has served as a consultant to the Aintree racecourse curator and to "You Bet." His particular interest is in the details of each race and in the early geography of the Aintree course. He's presently working on a comprehensive encyclopaedia of the Grand National.
|In 1829, William Lynn, the proprietor of the Waterloo Hotel in the industrious seaport of Liverpool, leased the land at Aintree some seven miles north from the middle of Liverpool, from Lord Sefton with the intention to stage flat race meetings. At that time Lynn, credited as an excellent first class public caterer, also was known as a person of distinction, having promoted many sporting activities in the Liverpool area, such as a hare-coursing event which became known as the Waterloo Cup. After he built a grandstand, the history of Aintree as a racecourse began on July 7th 1829, when Lynn introduced the first flat race meeting at Aintree. The very first race to be staged was the Croxteth Stakes, which was run over a mile and a quarter and won by a horse by the name of MUFTI, who was owned by a Mr Francis. Despite competition from the nearby Maghull meetings, the Aintree fixtures proved to be a tremendous success with around forty thousand people flocking to witness the sport.
Racing at Maghull had begun two years earlier, in 1827, when landowner John Formby introduced flat racing over its marshy, agricultural land. The Maghull meetings fell short of what was expected, as they did not have the same impact as nearby Manchester or Newton courses, and were affected dramatically by heavy rain. This was especially the case in July 1827, which on the marshy ground made the conditions for spectators farcically atrocious. After the July 1828 fixture, the Racing Committee applied pressure onto John Formby, by stating that he must comply to their demands of alterations and improvements to the racecourse, or the racing would be switched to the then newly-proposed Aintree site. It appears, though, that whether or not John Formby met their demands, racing at Aintree was going to go ahead anyway, as the Racing Committee, along with Lord Sefton, favoured and encouraged William Lynn to stage the July fixture at the new site.
From then on, both the Aintree and Maghull meetings fiercely contested against each other. A spring meeting was held at Maghull in May, and a summer meeting was held at Aintree in July. Racing at Maghull came to an end in late 1835 when John Formby went out of business. This was for three main reasons. First, William Lynn and Aintree racecourse had the strong financial backing of Lord Sefton and the Racing Committee. Second, the Aintree meeting in July was unrivalled, whereas the Maghull meeting clashed with the famous Chester meeting. Third, the quality of the turf at Aintree was lush and springy, in comparison to Maghull's swamp-like surface, which worsened in rain, making the conditions for both spectators and competitors a joke.
It was around the year of 1835 that William Lynn first had the thought of staging a steeplechase at Aintree, after assessing the success of a particular race at St. Albans, near London. This race was known as the Great St. Albans Steeplechase, which was first introduced by Thomas Coleman, proprietor of the Turf Hotel in St. Albans. The event, which ran from Harlington church to the obelisk in Wrest Park and back, was so well organised that, by 1834, it had become one of the big attractions of the year.
Lynn was so intrigued by the Great St. Albans Steeplechase and its success in luring custom, that he decided to venture into the sport of steeplechasing himself. Greatly influenced by Thomas Coleman's race, and assisted by Captain Martin Becher, Lynn decided to stage a steeplechase at Aintree that both started and finished near the stands, where the greater assemblage of spectators would be located.
The race was to be held on February 29th, 1836, and the conditions were advertised as follows:
A sweepstakes of 10 sovs. each with 80 sovs. added, for horses of all denominations, 12st. each, gentlemen riders, second horse receives back his stake. Winner to be sold for 200 sovs. if demanded.
Although most published books and articles claim the inception of the Grand National was 1839, this 1836 steeplechase at Aintree, which was won by Mr W.Sirdefield's THE DUKE, ridden by Captain Martin Becher, was the first-ever Grand National, destined to become world's greatest steeplechase.
There is then a great deal of confusion about the second and third Grand Nationals in 1837 and 1838. First, many sources indicate that these races were run at Maghull, even though Maghull definitely closed as a racecourse in 1835. Second, THE DUKE, ridden by Henry Potts, became the first dual winner of the race by winning in 1837. Third, SIR HENRY, ridden by Oliver, has been incorrectly listed as the winner in 1838. The newspaper reports on the day correctly state that SIR WILLIAM, ridden by Allen McDonough, was the winner. There is no evidence anywhere that states a horse called SIR HENRY was running anywhere, or that Tom Olliver was riding at Aintree.
Some sources do correctly indicate SIR WILLIAM was the winner in 1838, but ridden by Henry Potts, because Allen McDonough was injured. This is incorrect: Allen McDonough rode in the race following the National, so if injured he recovered rather quickly. But what finally sews this particular mystery is that in the write up for the 1838 Grand National from the Liverpool Chronicle, it commends McDonough's brilliant riding in the race on board SIR WILLIAM.
Why would so many mistakes creep into the records of the world's greatest steeplechase? Basically because steeplechasing was not really recognised until the late 1860s, after the National Hunt Committee was formed in 1866. The records of the Grand National were then officially compiled, but from memory only, some thirty years after the event, which is when the mistakes first crept in. These errors were then duplicated into the first volume of Steeplechases Past, and then duplicated again into Finch Mason's book (Heroes and Heroines of the Grand National) and D.H.Munroe's book (The Grand National). T.H.Bird's book (One Hundred Grand Nationals) attempts to sidestep the issue by suggesting that the 1837 and 1838 races were run over a course that stretched from Aintree to Maghull, but this is geographically impossible. Modern day historian Reg Green, too, unfortunately suggests that the 1837 and 1838 races were run at Maghull. However John Pinfold (Gallant Sport: The Authentic History of Liverpool Races and The Grand National) has it spot on.
The returns for the 1836, 1837 and 1838 Grand Nationals are as follows:
The Liverpool Grand Steeplechase
|DATE: Monday 29th February 1836 STARTERS: 10|
|THE DUKE ch.g. 7. 12-0 (Mr. W. Sirdefield)||Captain M. Becher||1|
|POLYANTHUS 5. 12-4 (Mr. Aspinall)||R. Christian||2|
|COCKAHOOP ch.g. 6. 12-0 (Mr. Thomas)||B. Bretherton||3|
|STARTING PRICES: 2/1 Laurie Todd; 3/1 The Duke; 5/1 Polyanthus; 6/1 Percy; 6/1 The Baronet; 8/1 Derry; 8/1 Gulliver; 9/1 Cockahoop; 10/1 The Sweep; 12/1 Cowslip|
|WINNING TIME: 20 mins. 10 secs.|
DISTANCES: 1 length
The Liverpool Steeplechase
|DATE: Wednesday 1st March 1837 STARTERS: 4|
|THE DUKE ch.g. 8. 12-0 (Mr. T. Chawner)||Mr. H. Potts||1|
|THE DISOWNED ch.g. 7. 12-0 (Mr. Williamson)||Mr. A. McDonough||2|
|DAN O'CONNELL ch.h. 7. 12-0 (Mr. J.F. Knaresborough)||Mr. J.F. Knaresborough||3|
|STARTING PRICES: 5/4 Dan O'Connell; 3/1 The Disowned; 6/1 The Duke; 12/1 Zanga|
|WINNING TIME: Not taken, estimated to be about 15 minutes|
DISTANCES: About 30 yards
The Liverpool Steeplechase
|DATE: Monday 5th March 1838 STARTERS: 3|
|SIR WILLIAM ch.h. 7. 12-7 (Mr. A. McDonough)||Mr. A. McDonough||1|
|SCAMP b.h 5. 11-12 (Mr. O'Moore)||Mr. Clarendon||2|
|THE DUKE ch.g. 9. 12-7 (Mr. T. Chawner)||Captain M. Becher||3|
|STARTING PRICES: 2/1 The Duke; 2/1 Sir William; 3/1 Scamp|
|WINNING TIME: Not Taken|
DISTANCES: About 40 yards